By Wendy W. Murawski
Social distancing. Stay-in ordinances. Home schooling. Experiences many of us never thought we would be living at the beginning of 2020. Now, the “new normal,” at least for the near future, involves students of all ages at home all day and parents trying to move their work to a virtual format. Managing the stress of change is a lot, but trying to do it while entertaining a kindergartner or overseeing a high-schooler’s online activities is enough to ramp up anyone’s stress level.
Just as businesses are trying to figure out how to sustain their work by renegotiating how to run the corporate world, so too must parents and caregivers renegotiate how things are done at home.
- Allow for different sleep/work schedules. Matthew Walker, the author of Why We Sleep, emphasizes that different people have different circadian rhythms, and our typical school days don’t really coincide with those rhythms. If someone is an early riser or a night owl, both are acceptable as long as it works with the family’s overall schedule. Working at home can allow some parents to do their best work early in the morning as children sleep in. As long as there is an agreed-upon schedule so that sleeping in doesn’t become a day in bed, different schedules may be a blessing in disguise.
- Be flexible but relatively consistent. Decide what time everyone in the house needs to be up, but remember that it’s OK to start later than a typical workday or school day (e.g. 10 a.m.). Engage your children in creating their own schedules by using index cards or post-it notes. Use one card per hour-long activity (or shorter times for younger children). They may have four cards with “schoolwork,” two cards with “TV/gaming,” one card with “Be outside,” one card with “Walk dog/chores,” and one card with “Reading.” Some may be used daily while others may be used only on certain days. Have children create their daily card schedules on the previous day for the following one, deciding what time each event will occur. This enables them to have choice and voice. By doing it the day before, parents and caregivers won’t have to spend time negotiating when exactly to walk the dog or how many hours to allot for the TV.
- Stay physically healthy. We all know exercise and nutrition are important, especially during a pandemic. Create a gym in the garage or schedule times to take a walk outside together or alone. Online PE sessions might be helpful; PE teacher Joe Wicks has a YouTube channel with free workouts. Embedding academics into regular activities also makes learning more manageable. Teach math and healthy eating through recipes and have older children be responsible for making dinner one night a week (with help at first). Figure out weekly meal menus together. Challenge children to a scavenger hunt of the pantry and research new recipes online, giving certain parental parameters (e.g., “It has to be healthy and tasty and include at least one vegetable”).
- Stay mentally healthy. Everyone needs brain breaks, but it can be frustrating to work while someone near you is watching TV or working on a puzzle. Have a dedicated area for brain breaks. Kids will need to know what the parameters are (how long, how loud, where, what’s allowed). In 2012, USC professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and colleagues demonstrated that even when our brains are resting, they aren’t idle. They recommend constructive internal reflection in addition to external attention. Brain breaks can be active (jumping jacks, kicking the soccer ball) or passive (writing in a journal, reading, coloring); they can be short (2 minutes) or longer (20 minutes). Note: Parents need brain breaks too. Don’t feel guilty—this is research-based!
- Be crafty. Most of us have lamented the need for more time at home to do projects. While for some this is even a busier time, consider how projects might be split by everyone in the household. Create lists of large and small projects for weekends, in the evenings, or even during “No Screen” times. Gardening, painting, fixing, and organizing all have elements that children can help with or even do on their own. Build something and teach measurement; research something together and review writing skills. Look at the child’s curriculum and see if you can come up with a creative way to help teach it. Many teachers and parents have already put up creative lesson ideas so you don’t need to recreate the wheel. Consider creating a Choice Board with activities that children can do. If desired, you can put something in the center boxes that you, as the parent, want or need them to do but then let children create their own ideas for the outer boxes. By the end of the week, they can complete one line of activities (vertical, horizontal or diagonal). A few visuals are provided here.
- Start a Genius Hour. I first learned about Genius Hour from Rebecca Mieliwocki, the 2012 National Teacher of the Year. The idea is that students can take one period a week to focus on a topic of their choosing. Do they want to learn a new language, create an app, solve a world problem, build a treehouse? Don Wettrick, author of Pure Genius: Building a Culture of Collaboration and Taking 20 Percent Time to the Next Level, writes, “I am more inspired by my students everyday by providing them some freedom and creating a culture that encourages collaboration and a willingness to take risks.” Why not adapt genius hour into the home for your children’s ages and interests? My high-schooler asked me to remind parents that it doesn’t need to be just an hour, or exactly an hour, and that some teens may prefer to work independently.
- Teach self-regulation. Children who are younger or those who have attention issues or special needs may struggle with self-regulation (being able to control their own behaviors). The top four methods for supporting self-regulation are self-monitoring, self-instruction/self- talk, goal-setting, and self-reinforcement. In a regular school year, many of these skills are taught by teachers, special educators, counselors, and through being with peers. The Council for Exceptional Children, is currently offering free membership through May 31 to provide resources for individuals with special needs (with the code CECED60).
- Time it! Children of all ages are used to a school day that helps them manage transitions. Teachers tell them when to change activities and bells ring to signal the end of class periods. Build in strategies to support that need at home. Set timers on iPhones, alarm clocks, or even with Alexa (who can name the timer to say “Your ‘Start Math Now’ timer is on.”) A 2019 newsletter by California State University Northridge’s Center for Teaching and Learning has tips for creating visual schedules. Set specific times for breaks where you, the parent, will be available to talk, answer questions, make lunch, and so forth. Use apps like Be Focused-Focus Timer to break up tasks into discrete intervals with short breaks, which can help children who struggle with attention stay motivated for a short time and identify what they will accomplish.
- Connect online. Parents who are educators can get help learning how to teach online. We Are Teachers has plenty of resources, and organizations are also providing webinars and educational games. Try Kahoot for games and Very Well Family and Learn 4 Good for strategies and information. Many families are also supporting one another by taking turns facilitating online ‘playdates’ with multiple children on Zoom.
- Limit the interruptions. Worried about getting your work done with eight hours of “Mom, mom, mom, mom”?! First, identify an ‘office space’ for each individual in the household. In a smaller space, you may need to build areas. Let children create their own offices (which may look suspiciously like forts with pillows, blankets, and chairs.) If you are sharing a table, set up manila folders to create the illusion of a cubicle. Second, draw stop light signs and put name clothespins on it. If your clothespin is on Green, you are available to talk if needed. Yellow indicates, “Please don’t bother me unless you really need to, and no, asking for a cookie is not a reason.” Red indicates, “I can’t be bothered unless it is life-threatening…and no, the fact you really want that cookie is not life-threatening!” Third, check in with your family between calls or big projects. Fourth, teach your children note-passing skills. If they really need to bother you, teach them how to enter quietly and give you a note that you can answer as soon as you can. For younger children or those who need more concrete supports, provide a limited number of “Bother Me” coupons. This will help reduce the amount of times they come into your space. If a child knows they can only bother you three times a day, they will hoard their passes rather than use them up in the first hour of the day.
- Make it a game. Need additional motivation to have children work quietly, complete classwork, do chores, or work on projects? Consider having them accrue points for certain tasks. Much like giving credit for chores in order to get an allowance, these points can be for a variety of desirable items: additional game time, screen time, snacks, friend time, a new pet (think fish, not pony), or a piece of clothing.
- Laugh. Psychotherapist Diane Gehart, author of Mindfulness for Chocolate Lovers (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), states that while “the stresses of modern life often create the illusion that life is hard, painful, and lonely,” we need to laugh, to love, and to reconnect with the best within ourselves. Take time to look at funny YouTube videos, send jokes to one another, watch a comedy, play a game together. Use the time to connect meaningfully, and remember the old adage: “Humor is the best medicine.”
Wendy W. Murawski (@WWMurawski) is the executive director and Eisner Endowed Chair of the Center for Teaching and Learning at California State University, Northridge, and a professor of special education.